Interleague Play: Here to Stay, Like It or Not

An era of baseball history will end on the evening of June 12, when for the first time National League batters face American League pitchers in the regular season. The Red Sox enter the interleague era the next night, visiting the New York Mets.

Friday the 13th. Shea Stadium. These are bad omens. Will the Mets roll the ceremonial first pitch between Bill Buckner’s legs?

Bad memories and the break with tradition aren’t the only reasons to dislike interleague play. An interleague schedule will distort the wild-card race and the record books, and won’t produce the revenue its proponents expect.

Proponents of interleague play say it will attract more fans and renew interest in baseball. William Veeck Sr., president of the Chicago Cubs, first proposed a midsummer schedule of interleague games in 1933, when attendance had fallen 40% in three years. Forty years later, with offense and fan support lagging, the American League endorsed interleague play at the same time it adopted the DH. The NL rejected both innovations.

Any financial boost from interleague play will have to come from the box office, because MLB botched its opportunity for more TV money. Instead of using interleague games as a bargaining chip, MLB signed five-year TV deals six months before adopting interleague play. Now the added curiosity benefits only the networks. MLB even misdrafted its schedule: the historic first night of interleague play falls on a Thursday, when Fox’s low-visibility sports cable channel holds exclusive national TV rights.

But fans will only attend, or watch, interleague games if those matchups are more attractive than the games they replace. This year MLB has pitted the two leagues' Eastern, Central and Western Divisions against one another. This provides the Mets-Yankees and Cubs-White Sox battles most fans associate with interleague play -- but also dozens of games like the the very first interleague contest, which features the San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers. Once the novelty factor wears off, not many fans will line up for that clash, or the upcoming Florida-Detroit and Cincinnati-Minnesota showdowns.

This year teams in the Eastern and Central Divisions will play a single three-game series against each of their counterparts, while teams in the four-club Western Division play two-game home-and-home series. While MLB hasn’t officially settled on a format for interleague play in 1998 and beyond, the divisional pairings are expected to rotate.

In 1997 the Sox will entertain the Marlins, Expos and Phillies at Fenway, while visiting the Mets and Braves. In return, they lose at least one game with each team in the American League, including the rival Yankees, Orioles, and Blue Jays. And this is the best schedule of the six-year rotation -- next year, Sox fans may have to settle for the Pirates and Reds.

As this schedule shows, the six-year rotation dilutes the benefit fans expect from interleague play. Even if he remains in the majors through 2008,.Jeff Bagwell will play only six games in his hometown. Pitchers' appearances will be even rarer: If Greg Maddux stays with Atlanta, he has only a 60% chance of hurling a single game in Boston before he turns 40. Once fans realize how seldom they'll be seeing popular favorites, the pressure for more interleague games will build.

These games could be added as early as 1998. Next year's expansion leaves each league with an odd number of teams -- which means at least one interleague game every day of the season. With interleague play scheduled for Opening Day and at the height of the pennant race, a Red Sox-Cardinals game will mean no more than a Red Sox-Royals game, and all separate league identity will soon vanish.

In short, MLB will have nothing to show for its deliberate destruction of one of the game's most cherished traditions.

Copyright © 1997 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the May 1997 issue of Boston Baseball.

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